Doing Practices versus Practicing
“Practice means to perform, over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” —Martha Graham.
I record and listen.
I participate in Reflective Listening Buddies.
I have a Zen Awareness Coach.
I write a love letter daily and listen to it first thing in the morning.
I participate in the yearlong retreat.
I listen to Open Air on Tuesday nights.
I get the Practice Everywhere Tweets.
My day starts with reading daily peace quotes.
If I am doing any or all of these practices, am I practicing? Surprisingly, the answer is not necessarily. It is possible to keep all of my practice commitments, to participate in everything that Practice offers and still not be practicing. How? Because as we say in Practice, “It’s not WHAT but HOW.”
As awareness practitioners, how do we practice? We practice being present. What does that mean, one might ask? It doesn’t mean anything actually. It’s just a phrase we use to point to an experience. That experience we could say is, in the words of Martha Graham, the “perfection desired.”
Keeping a practice commitment is not a sufficient condition to invite the “perfection desired.” If I’m not paying attention, if I’m not directing attention to awareness, if I’m indulging a conversation in conditioned mind while I do my practices, I’m not practicing being present, I’m practicing being in conditioned mind. I’m doing a practice of “choosing something over ending suffering.”
So for example, if I am ticking my practices off my to-do list, satisfied at the end of the day that I’ve done a good job if I do them all and feeling bad if I don’t get to them, it would be more accurate to say that ego is “doing practices.” Because at no point in this entire process am I dis-identified enough to “see” that I am identified with a “someone” listening to and believing a voice in the head telling “me” who I am based on what I do or do not do. I am not looking at conditioned mind, I am looking through it.
It’s a coup for ego if it can convince a person that they are practicing ending suffering when they’re actually identifying with it. (It’s almost impossible to “see” identification with ego when I think I am not identified. Which is why we need a Guide, a Sangha or a recording device. But that’s another discussion for another time.)
None of this is to say that we should stop “doing practices” if we aren’t practicing awareness perfectly. One can’t claim to be an awareness practitioner if one doesn’t practice being aware. The process is the outcome. This is the paradox of spiritual practice. If we conclude that I shouldn’t practice meditation because “I” identified with self-hate twice during a thirty-minute sit, I’m missing the point of a practice of sitting! How did I know that I was identified? Was I aware of that while I was identified? Would I know that if I weren’t paying attention? Any practice I choose to do is simply a container of awareness that reflects the interplay of attention and awareness. In doing the practices, I am practicing paying attention. In other words, I’m practicing becoming the awareness that is aware of what attention is attending to.
It is always helpful to know what we are practicing.
When we first come to a practice of Awareness, it is essential to have practice commitments. At this stage of practice, it’s not so much about keeping commitments as much as becoming aware of the process that talks us out of keeping commitments and then blames us for not keeping them. Commitments are the training wheels for an Awareness Practice. They assist us in the first crucial step of “seeing conditioned mind.” We learn to recognize the process of “me,” become familiar with ego’s signature and develop an awareness of the beliefs and assumptions and the messages of self-hate that keep the ego-identity in place.
Once we’ve practiced identifying egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, we’re ready to extend our practice. Now, not keeping a practice commitment is a two-step. We not only notice how ego controls us and how self-hate beats us up, we ALSO use our practice commitment as an opportunity to practice Unconditional Love and Acceptance for the human being. This is an “act of compassion” we will perform and perfect for a lifetime, in the face of all ego’s nay-saying. Here, the difference between “doing practices” and practicing is noticing what “sees” ego/self-hate. Ego observing self-hate is not an invitation to presence. Conscious compassionate awareness, aware of self-hate in the field of awareness, is.
Ultimately, awareness practice is a practice of seeing. Our seeing is limited by conditioning. This means that we cannot see what we’re conditioned not to see. Becoming aware of conditioning gives us a choice to “see” how things are as they are rather than how we’re conditioned to see them. Once this “vision” develops, our practice can become a dance with consciousness itself. It’s therefore important to practice seeing “something” other than conditioning! Now our practice commitments assist us to develop attention on awareness rather than just being aware of conditioned mind. We practice seeing the “Emptiness” that is form.
In “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it,” we tell a story.
A young seeker coming to a Monastery is assigned to weed the garden. Eager to be of service, she enthusiastically throws herself into the task. A couple of months later, a monk notices that the garden has no flowers or vegetables. It turns out that the novice gardener did not know the difference between a weed and a flower. Once she was given this information, the seeker renewed her efforts. Soon the garden was flourishing. People from far and wide came to admire the beauty of the flowers and the bounty of fruits and vegetables it produced.
The seeker on the other hand was weary. She went to her teacher and said, “I’m tired, angry and frustrated. I spend all my time weeding and I still can’t keep up with the weeds.” The teacher then said, “Go back to the garden and spend all your time loving the flowers and the vegetables.”
Months later, the teacher passing by the garden noticeed the seeker singing and laughing. The song was about the beauty of the flowers, the dance of the bees and the bounty of the vegetables. The teacher stopped and asked the seeker, “What about the weeds?”
“When I notice them,” the seeker says, “I gently pull them out and tell them it’s time to go.”
Just weeding is not the remit of a gardener. So too with awareness practitioners. Awareness practice is a spiritual practice, perhaps because the opportunity available to any practitioner is to realize the capacity to be the awareness that is aware of everything that awareness is aware of. The “perfection desired” then becomes the joy of Intelligence knowing itself as All That Is, weeds, flowers, gardening, gardens and gardener.
“Under whatever name and form one may worship the Absolute Reality, it is only a means for realizing It without name and form. That alone is true realization, wherein one knows oneself in relation to that Reality, attains peace and realizes one's identity with it.” —Ramana Maharshi
Doing Practices versus Practicing